In conversation with Daniel Dock, Trax Interconnect: How technology ramp-up can save the PCB industry

June 30th, 2016, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: EngineerIT

 

Trax Interconnect, which started off in a garage in Cape Town over 40 years ago, has developed into one of South Africa’s foremost printed circuit board (PCB) manufacturers. Last year the company went through a management buy-out – with Daniel Dock, marketing manager for the past seven years, becoming the CEO.  With the current focus on developing the electronics industry in South Africa; promoting local manufacturing and the potential of the PCB manufacturing sector, I invited Dock to a Skype conversation which turned out to be both enlightening and fascinating.

Daniel Dock, CEO of TRAX Interconnect

Daniel Dock, CEO of TRAX Interconnect

Fascinating, because who would have believed that PCBs manufactured in South Africa were used in the CERN Hadron Collider project in Switzerland?  During our conversation Dock casually mentioned, “Last year we were approached by the University of the Witwatersrand who are collaborating with CERN in Switzerland, to produce a highly sophisticated PC board for their Hadron Collider. It was a challenge as we had never produced anything like it.  It made us realise what, with the right effort, we in South Africa are capable of. For Trax and our staff it was a proud moment.

“During the past five years technology in the PCB industry changed so much that many South African manufacturers were left behind and found that it became almost impossible to compete with offshore suppliers. The pervasiveness of the internet did not help local manufacturers as it became so easy to collaborate with offshore suppliers to discuss designs and ultimately place a contract.  The irony is that local PCB manufacturers have to pay duty on their raw materials while completed boards can be imported with no duty, making it doubly difficult to meet offshore offerings.”

Dock said that there was only one option for the industry to survive in this competitive environment and that was to ramp up technology and concentrate on quality of service and a quick turnaround time.  “I believe that by providing great support to companies during the prototype stage, production orders will follow. Our own vision was to concentrate on the hi-tech market. We were able to utilise various government technology support programmes to invest in the latest manufacturing technology and equipment. We also acquired software that enabled us to support local companies with their designs and simulations.

“I believe that at this stage South Africa is not ready to compete in the big volume market;  but we are more likely able to carve a niche in the high-end technology market.

“This country has so many incredibly talented engineers who are developing sophisticated electronics. The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is a good example. Its focus is on involving local industry and stimulating the building of sophisticated manufacturing facilities such as the production of 16-layer boards and the capability to do resin and copper filling of vias. Part of the SKA’s mandate is to build local expertise and develop an industry that can support the exponentially growing innovation driving the SKA. Electronic equipment built for aircraft industries such as Boeing and Airbus further illustrate the capabilities we have in our country.

“To keep and improve our position as the preferred destination for hi-tech electronic manufacturing I believe it is essential that we place major emphasis on staff training, both to support the manufacturing process and also to give customers support in streamlining and optimising their designs. As an industry we have the responsibility to employ interns who come with many new ideas and academic experience. I view this as a two-way street, they get practical experience from the older generation staff but also rub off their knowledge on us. It is a strong way to build our future which clearly lies with the younger generation.”

With so much going on it was inevitable that our conversation turned to the  migration of digital terrestrial television (DTT) and the requirement to produce large volumes of set top boxes. “It was seen by the industry as a major opportunity to set PCB manufacturing on a sound footing. Unfortunately politics got in the way and DTT turned out to be a huge missed opportunity.

“At the time the local industry may not have been able to produce the total requirement, but with partial local manufacture and limited offshore manufacturing being handled by the local PCB manufacturers, the industry would have been given the opportunity to build capacity and set the industry on a sounder footing going forward.”

The PCB and electronic contract manufacturing sector is part of the Metals Industry Federation. “We are like square pegs in a round hole. There is no SETA approved training  that covers our requirements. We need our own industry federation if we want to grow this industry. We need a strong voice.

“As an industry we have the potential to create export to markets where the requirements are for high tech low volume PCB products. We can create more job opportunities, but then government must increase its support by, for instance, creating opportunities for bonded stores, abolishing import duty on raw materials, institute import duties on offshore produced PCBs and provide more export promotion opportunities to enable the industry to exhibit it capability and technology overseas.”

Five years ago the PCB manufacturing industry may have been lagging behind. Some companies closed their doors, but after having a conversation with Daniel Dock I believe that the industry has great potential to grow and spread its hi-tech products manufactured in South Africa to the European and American markets.

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